Episode 6: Dragons of the Echowood

Episode 6: Dragons of the Echowood Tales of the Echowood

CONTENT WARNING: Depictions of fantasy violence, themes of natural disaster and climate change, and some dread, low rumbling sound effects and loud noises.As Autumn gives way to winter and the Inn of the Archway prepares for the months of cold, Grael tells the Traveler the story of a dwarven village high in the mountains and its battle with a dragon during one of the worst winters the Echowood had ever known.Starring Sam Taylor as Grael, Alejandra Cejudo as Maeven, and Tal Minear as The Traveler, with original music by Jesse Haugen. Written and produced by Trevor Van Winkle, and made possible by our supporters on Kickstarter, Patreon.com/homesteadcorner, and ko-fi.com/homesteadcorner. Executive produced by Axel Allcock.For more information, additional content, and episode transcript, visit homesteadonthecorner.com/tote006 "Dark Emptiness" elements created by jalastram (https://freesound.org/people/jalastram/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)"Medieval City" element created by OGsoundFX (https://freesound.org/people/OGsoundFX/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)"Wind in basement" element created by jrosin (https://freesound.org/people/jrosin/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)"Breaking Ice" element created by dheming (https://freesound.org/people/dheming/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/) See acast.com/privacy for privacy and opt-out information.

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CONTENT WARNING: Depictions of fantasy violence, themes of natural disaster and climate change, and some dread, low rumbling sound effects and loud noises.As Autumn gives way to winter and the Inn of the Archway prepares for the months of cold, Grael tells the Traveler the story of a dwarven village high in the mountains and its battle with a dragon during one of the worst winters the Echowood had ever known.

Starring Sam Taylor as Grael, Alejandra Cejudo as Maeven, and Tal Minear as The Traveler, with original music by Jesse Haugen. Written and produced by Trevor Van Winkle, and made possible by our supporters on Kickstarter, Patreon.com/homesteadcorner, and ko-fi.com/homesteadcorner. Executive produced by Axel Allcock.

For more information, additional content, and episode transcript, visit homesteadonthecorner.com/tote006 

“Dark Emptiness” elements created by jalastram (https://freesound.org/people/jalastram/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)

“Medieval City” element created by OGsoundFX (https://freesound.org/people/OGsoundFX/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)

“Wind in basement” element created by jrosin (https://freesound.org/people/jrosin/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)

“Breaking Ice” element created by dheming (https://freesound.org/people/dheming/), Licensed under Creative Commons (CC 3.0 Unported: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)

Transcript

CONTENT WARNING: Depictions of fantasy violence, themes of natural disaster and climate change, and some dread, low rumbling sound effects and loud noises.

[Singing insects and wind at night]

Narrator

Before we get started, this episode contains depictions of fantasy violence, themes of natural disaster and climate change, and some dread. Content warnings and a full transcript are available in the show notes.

[Forest sounds fade out]

[Crackling fire, wind through the eaves of the inn]

[Grael sits down and sighs]

Grael

Ready?

[The Traveler hesitates, then nods]

[Grael takes a deep breath]

Grael

Spirits of this Echoed Wood: Of Fire, Earth, and Air… Your powers lend and make amends, For loss and grief and fear.

[Wind rises, dishes begin to rattle on table]

[Flash of magic]

Grael

This child lost and wand’ring, This one without a home; Who lost their voice without a choice, And wordless, left to roam.

[Rumbling and rattling intensifies]

Grael

Raise now thy strength together, And turn wrong’d souls to right: Their voice restore as was before, This moonless, starless night!

[Thunder crashes]

[Sounds fade out]

[Grael catches his breath]

Grael

Anything?

[The Traveler tries to speak, then shakes their head no]

[Grael slams his hand into the table as he takes off]

[Grael’s wings]

Grael

Oak and thorn, that’s the fifth spell I’ve tried. Why isn’t this working?

[Uncorks and pours from wine bottle]

[Traveler shrugs]

Grael

Gods, I’ve been working magic longer than anyone alive… Why can’t I just figure this one out? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you already had your voice back, but that isn’t possible, right? I’ve tried spells from every single school of magic… Well, except witchcraft, but I can’t use that. What else is left? I can try a few variations, but it’s —

[A distant roar that sounds like a windstorm]

[Silence]

Grael

You’d best get to bed. I’ll be up late.

[Grael’s wings]

[Traveler shuffles nervously]

[Grael laughs quietly]

Grael

No no, it’s nothing to worry about. Just something I woke up with that spell. It’ll be hours before I can put it back to sleep. Go get some rest… We’ve a busy day tomorrow.

[Main theme]

Narrator

Homestead on the Corner presents: Tales of the Echowood

[Main theme ends]

[Sounds of the forest at morning]

[Grael’s wings, and the sound of an axe chopping firewood]

[The door to the inn opens]

[Footsteps over leaves approaching]

[Grael sighs, exhausted]

Grael

Finally awake, Traveler? Sun’s halfway to noon. Thought I might have to do all of this myself… Not that I mind, but I am getting on a bit these days. Just go ahead and jump in whenever you’re ready.

[The traveler doesn’t move to help]

Grael

I’m serious. Winter’s on its way, and if we don’t have enough firewood, we freeze to death.

[Traveler gestures to the already-cut wood]

Grael

No, we don’t have enough already. There’s no telling how long the snow will last this far into the deep-wood, and I’ve seen more than a few homesteaders die of cold two months before the thaw. Better to be over-prepared, in my book.

[The Traveler starts to walk off]

Grael

Where do you think you’re going?

[Traveler gestures widely at the forest]

[Grael sticks the axe into a nearby log and flies over]

Grael

Listen here, Traveler… You’ve been a guest in my inn for the last three months. You’ve eaten my food, drank my wine, and sat by my fire, and in all that time, you’ve barely lifted a finger to help. You’re more than welcome to stay of course, but it would do you good to put some work into your living before you forget how.

[The Traveler hesitates, then turns back, picking up the axe]

Grael

Good choice! Now…

[The Traveler crosses their arms]

Grael

What’s that look for?

[Silence]

Grael

Oh… You want another story, do you? Something to take your mind off the work?

[The Traveler nods]

[Grael chuckles, flying over to a nearby log and sitting]

Grael

Well, I think I can accommodate that request. In fact… There is a tale I like to tell on mornings like this, when the winter’s cold begins to nip at the heels of autumn. Think it might do you some good to hear it.

[The Traveler begins to chop firewood]

[Music rises]

Grael

Winter in the Echowood has always been a difficult time. It’s difficult in every world, of course: the season when the sun shines less often and less brightly, and the air turns colder than most living things can bear. I’ve always hated it myself: seeing the leaves wither and die on their branches, leaving only skeletons behind to be buried under snow and frost and ice. A few hardy species endure – evergreens, snow finches, humans – but most migrate to warmer climes or slumber in deep caverns for the months of cold and hardship. This is the easier path, and perhaps the more sensible one, for of all the seasons in the year, winter is the only one that turns the very world around you hostile and deadly.

There are few folk in all the Echowood hardier than the dwarves, however, and few dwarves more stubborn than the ones who dwell in the blue mountains. If there truly is a ragged edge to this world, it’s those towering edifices of snow and ice, and yet the dwarves endure, their mining villages built on platforms driven into the very rock, balanced on the razor’s-edge of outcroppings and splits in the stone. They have to be built there, for that is the only place in the Echowood where the gemstones and ores of their craft can be found in plenty, and so they have to be a hardy people: tough, resourceful, and deeply protective of what they collect and mine and hammer into jewelry, armor, and weapons in their great forges. Many would seek to steal it, if given half a chance… but few thieves would ever risk the perilous climb to their summit villages, or face the wrath of the proud people who laugh in the face of winter as their forges burn long into the night.

But like all peoples, there were some dwarves who did not fit the mould of their kin. A soul, after all, is not defined by where it was born or the color or shape of the body it dwells in, but by itself alone. Dwarven parents were often strict, hammering their children into the shape they saw fit, just as they hammered and refined silver and gold from the raw stone of the mountain. But not all stone held ore, and not all children thought or felt the same as their parents. Some of these moved away, finding other work and other places where they felt they belonged… But a few of them stayed, still feeling at home in the mountains even if they had no fixed place in the village of their birth.

[Cold wind and snow]

Such a one was Ofrin Old-stone. His mother was a miner, his father a jewel-smith, his brothers and sisters all formed of the common clay of dwarf society. But he was youngest and strangest of them all. He did not take to work in the mines, nor in the forges, nor in any of the dozen jobs which supported them, for he found the closeness and darkness of the tunnels oppressive and terrifying, and the heat and noise of the smithies utterly suffocating.

[Sounds of metallic hammering, low drone]

He had tried to work both jobs, but within a few hours he simply could not bear it any longer and wandered away, standing on the edge of the snowy platforms and staring out across the towering range that was his home, watching the sunlight move slowly across its vast, cold slopes as it arced towards the far horizon.

And so, when he was full grown and meant to start the work that would shape his adulthood, he instead found himself a drifter, wandering across the village during working hours, taking what odd jobs he could find to earn a little bit of spending money. He still lived at home, as did all dwarves – the cliff-side village was already sprawling, and there was no room for any new residences to be built. The family home belonged to all the family, and those who did not wish to remain there were those who left for other villages or the distant trees of the Echowood below. Ofrin, of course, remained. Though he despised the mines and hated the forge, he loved the mountainside, and even the biting cold of winter was familiar and welcome in his eyes. So he remained – an outsider and stranger to most, but still part of the village. Many looked down on him, but he didn’t much care. This was his home, and he would do whatever he could to stay there.

[Distant rumble of thunder, sounds of wind and snow rise]

The winter of his twenty-seventh year arrived with a fury few could withstand, harder and colder than any in living memory. The snow fell heavy for days on end, burying the narrow wooden streets and catwalks that connected the village in dangerous, heavy drifts that threatened to shatter the supports and send the village toppling down.

[Creaking wood, metal shovels in the snow]

All those who were not needed in the mines were recruited to shovel snow around the clock — including Ofrin. He was more than happy to have steady work beneath the open sky, even if that work was back-breaking and endless. But at the end of the first month of winter, at the conclusion of a long, painful shift, Ofrin had just handed in his shovel to the overseer, making his way down from the upper levels to his family’s home in old-town.

[Slow footsteps through snow]

His body was aching, and his lungs were ragged with the cold despite the heavy woolen scarf wound around his beard and over his face. Even with his love of the open air, at that moment he wanted nothing more than to collapse into his bed in the warm safety of his cramped and busy home. But even so, he paused at the end of Opal lane – the long catwalk connecting the village square to old-town – and stared out at the wide vista of the blue mountains it commanded.

[Faint, distant singing]

The sun was already setting in the west, and the red and orange light shone out from beneath the thick layer of high, grey clouds to paint the mountains in shades of fire. This had become his ritual every night since he started shoveling, and he stood motionless as he watched the colors brighten, then dim, and then fade away as the sun slipped below the horizon, and the sky began to darken.

Ofrin breathed deep, smiling despite his exhaustion. The blue mountains were a harsh, stark place, and only rarely did such colors appear upon their slopes. Turning on his heels, he prepared to cross the narrow catwalk and return home… When he stopped short.

[Low, rising drone]

It was hard to see through the fog and clouds and darkness, but he could have sworn he saw movement against the mountains… some black shape moving against the shadowed stone. He couldn’t see it now, and so he almost dismissed it, but… There! He saw it again, clearer this time: some kind of winged animal, circling in and out of a fog bank. At first, he thought it was a bird: one of the hawks or carrion eaters built for winter and common in these mountains.

[Thunder rumbles, music]

But then he noticed where the fog bank sat: hugging the side of Mount Rakish nearly ten leagues away. Ofrin gasped as his sense of perspective engaged, and he realized that it was not some small bird flying nearby, but an enormous beast borne up on massive wings that must have stretched a hundred feet across. There was only one kind of animal he knew that fit that description – and as he raced back towards the center of town to ring the alarm bell, his voice rose in a ragged, fearful cry: “Dragon! Dragon on the mountain!”

[Bell ringing]

The guards were soon in their watchtowers, spyglasses trained at the place where Ofrin had seen the creature. By the time he’d rung the bell and explained what he’d seen, the dragon had vanished back into the fog bank… but the sentries were dispatched nonetheless. Even if there were few in the village who fully trusted Ofrin’s word, a dragon sighting was not something they took lightly. Though no one in the village had ever encountered one, every dwarf knew the stories: how the winged titans fell out of the sky like the hand of god, destroying villages and towns and pillaging their collective wealth to build their great treasure hoard before any hand could be raised against them.

{Sounds of machinery]

Ballistas were cleared of snow and readied on the upper levels of the village, watchfires were lit, and the guards spent the whole of the night staring out into the darkened fog: seeing nothing, but hearing the distant beat of heavy wings cutting through the fog and icy wind. Few in the village slept well that night, and Ofrin did not sleep at all.

[Sounds of wind and cold fog, distant wingbeats]

The fog slowly lifted as the hours of darkness stretched on, and the first light of morning glinted and sparked off the scales of the far-off dragon as the sentries tracked it with their spyglasses, calling out its position to the archers below. It still hovered in the same place, diving in great circles around the peak of Mount Rakish… but it had not moved off, and every sentry felt certain that its eyes were locked on their village.

[Sounds of argument and debate]

The council was called, with Ofrin as key witness. There was some discussion about how best to handle the situation, but no question at all about the threat a dragon represented. So after several hours of deliberation, the assembled council members and the captain of the village guard had nearly completed their plan of attack… When the great hall suddenly rattled and shook against the mountainside, throwing those on their feet to the ground.

[Rattling dishes, distant roar]

[Bell ringing]  

Every dwarf in the hall rushed outside, just in time to see the great shadow of the dragon pass overhead, its bright red wings buffeting the village as they beat the air.

[Repeated snap of ballistas and crossbows firing, machinery]

It swooped low and fast over the roofs of the village, easily outrunning the ballista bolts as the sentries struggled to retarget the heavy machines. A few fired their own small bows, but the tiny arrows could barely climb high enough to hit the beast, much less do any damage to the thick scales protecting its flanks. All watched in horror as the beast slowed, turned, and then dove back towards the village, a fierce red glow at the back of its throat clearly visible through its razor-sharp teeth.

[Roar and crackle of fire]

Ofrin cried out and dove to the ground as a jet of white-hot fire shot from its open mouth, streaking high above the tallest structures in the village, but still close enough to singe the hairs on the back of his neck. He felt the beat of the dragon’s wings overhead rattle his bones for a moment, then nothing… the thrum of its wings fading and dimming as it flew back towards Mount Rakish. After a long moment, all was quiet and still.

[Village falls silent]

[Low drone rises]

Ofrin and his fellow dwarves were slow to rise, but eventually they did get back to their feet, clearly shaken. They had all lived through blizzards and windstorms the likes of which no one else in the Echowood had endured… but the dragon was a force unto itself, a calamity unlike anything they’d faced before. More than any words spoken or any legend retold, that moment solidified the council’s course of action: the dragon had to be killed.

[Music]

[Hammering metal and sawing wood]

All through the day, the ballistas mounted on the outer walls of the village were modified and upgraded by the war-smiths, their gears and pulleys loosened and oiled to ensure they could keep up with the speed of the dragon’s flight.

[Indistinct shouting]

New guards were conscripted and sent to watch the walls… including Ofrin, much to his dismay. Guard duty was one of the odd jobs he’d worked before, but one nighttime raid by a group of roving harpies had been enough to make him resign. If the dragon attacked again – which seemed more and more likely by the minute – the last place he wanted to be was between a dragon and its prey.

It did not attack again that day, nor the day after… just circling the peak of the far off mountain, settling on its slopes every once in a while to rest and – Ofrin assumed – to eat. The upgrades to the ballistas were completed, and the engineers began to work on reinforcing the walls and making sure they had enough buckets to put out any fires the dragon started.

[Hammering, pulleys]

Work in the mines had almost completely stopped as nearly every dwarf was conscripted into service… But still the dragon circled, staring at the village through wide, bright eyes that shone brightly across the leagues which separated them, looking to Ofrin almost like it was waiting for something… Though for what, he did not know.

[Sounds of a heavy snowstorm, muffled wind]

[Footsteps in snow]

Then, at sunset on the third day, the clouds gathering overhead finally opened: letting loose a heavy fall of wet, sticky snow that reduced visibility almost to nothing, coating every exposed surface within minutes. Ofrin had been rotated to one of the ballistas that night, and he spent hours just trying to keep the weapon clear and dry. This was no easy task, as he was shivering even through his thick coat, mittens, and scarf with the terrible cold, and had to alternate between his station and warming his hands on the small pit fire next to it. That was a blessed relief at least, added by the engineers at the last minute when round-the-clock shifts had been put into effect, and Ofrin silently thanked his god for its comforting warmth.

[Sound of wingbeats]

[Music]

It was at that moment when he heard it: the heavy thump, thump, thump of something massive cutting through the air on wide, leathery wings. Ofrin jumped. The air was heavy, thick with muffling snow that killed almost all sound. If he could hear the dragon’s wings, that meant it was close, and if it was close…

[Roar]

A gout of flame broke the snowy darkness: dimmed and darkened in the snow, but still bright as the noonday sun as it reflected on ice and snow and rock. The dragon’s silhouette appeared like a hole in the night sky above him, flying lower than before over the village as it spewed its fiery ordinance against the mountainside above.

[Roar and crackling fire]

Ofrin forgot the cold in his hands immediately, running to his ballista and desperately sweeping the snow away, trying to turn it about.

[Metallic creaking and groaning}

The machinery moved a few inches, then shuddered to a stop. He tried to force it for a moment, then realized with mounting horror that the snow had gummed the gears and frozen them in place. He heard cries of frustration and dismay from further down the wall, and realized that the other conscripts were having the same problem. It planned this, Ofrin realized, mind going numb with fear: It waited for the snowstorm. It knew this would happen.

[Distant scream and falling rocks]

A shrill scream from the village shook Ofrin from his thoughts, and he turned to see a small rockfall crash into the village hall, apparently loosed by the dragon’s passage. He could no longer see the dragon through the thick snow and darkness, but he knew it was turning around for another pass, another attack. Ofrin looked around, trying to think of any way to clear the snow freezing his weapon in place before it returned… And then his eyes locked on the pit fire, and a plan suddenly crystalized in his mind. It was desperate… But then again, so was he.

[Quick footsteps in snow]

[Metal creak and fall, flames whooshing]

Moving faster than he thought possible in his winter clothing, Ofrin gripped the edge of the pit fire and tipped it over, spilling the burning coals into the gears and pulleys that turned his ballista. The wood and leather were soaked through and struggled to ignite, but the snow and ice around them flashed into steam almost immediately.

[Hiss of steam]

[Mechanism turning]

Ofrin pushed, and a moment later the ballista began to turn — slowly at first, and then faster and faster as he pointed it in the direction the beast had vanished. Already, he could hear the heavy beating of its wings, and a moment later Ofrin saw the faint glimmer of dull red fire shining through the thick winter air. He would have one shot at this… and he intended to make it count. 

[Music fades, slowed heartbeat]

It all happened faster than Ofrin could really see. The angular head of the dragon appeared in the dim torchlight shining up from the village below. He saw its mouth open, the dull embers in its throat blazing into pure white fire tinged with yellow, orange, and blue where it cooled against the midnight air.

[Crackling flame, impact]

A jet of flame shot over his head, slamming against the snow and rock and ice above the village, crackling and blazing in the dark as it sparked and steamed… And Ofrin pulled the trigger mechanism, loosing the four-foot bolt of hard, cold steel just as the ballista finally caught fire, cracking and shattering as the mechanism pulled tight.

[Mechanism breaking, rising tone]

He felt a sharp pain in his right hand as the bowstrings snapped.. But the bolt flew straight and true exactly where he aimed it: climbing what felt like miles through the air before plunging deep into the side of the monstrous beast, all but vanishing as it pierced the dragon’s scales.

[Pained roar]

The stream of fire cut suddenly short as a horrible scream of pain shattered the night, echoing off the mountains. Ofrin dove to the ground as the beast began to fall, narrowly missing the outer walls of the village as it vanished into the darkness far below. The earth beneath the village shook with the impact as its body struck the valley floor, and just like that… It was over.

[Silence]

It took Ofrin nearly ten minutes to catch his breath, and nearly that long to really feel the pain in his hand… But he’d done it. Somehow, he’d managed to slay a dragon: him, the layabout son who couldn’t mine or smith or guard the walls like his siblings, the one who everyone said would never amount to anything… He had saved the village. So great was his excitement that he failed to notice the burning remains of his ballista had extinguished themselves far too quickly for even the falling snow to explain, as he raced down the ladder and towards the village center.

[Footsteps in snow, fearful, angry muttering]

What Ofrin found was not the celebration he’d expected. A crowd was gathered in the square, but rather than songs and cheers of exultation, Ofrin heard the raised voices of frightened parents and the sound of children crying in the cold. As he pushed his way through the shivering throng, he realized it was far darker than it should have been, and looked up to see the lamps and torches lining the street were all extinguished. At first, he wondered if the beating of the dragon’s wings had put out the flames… But then he heard the words being shouted by his terrified neighbors. The flame in this one’s hearth had suddenly died, and no amount of coaxing could bring it back. The blacksmith’s forges, which had been working non-stop since the appearance of the dragon, had all blown out at once, the half-finished tools and weapons now cooling into useless lumps of iron on their workbenches. Even the great coal furnace beneath the city hall was all but dead, the cinders barely holding onto their warmth as the attendants desperately pumped the bellows, trying to restore it to life… And all of this, it seemed, had happened just as the dragon was cast down by Ofrin’s hand.

It took a while for him to push his way to the front and report what happened to the captain of the guard. As soon as he finished his report, the captain turned to the village elders, murmuring and whispering for about five minutes before turning back to the fearful, expectant crowd. The dragon had been defeated, the captain said… but it seemed the foul beast had one last trick to play. It had cursed their village – dragons were, after all, known to be creatures formed of magic as much as blood and flesh. Where else could their fire come from? If that was the case, then their course of action was clear: like all such magic, the curse must be tied to the life of the beast, so it was clearly still alive, nursing its wounds in the valley below. A band of soldiers would need to make their way down the mountain, find the dragon, and kill it, properly.

Ofrin scowled at this, stewing in his anger as the village elders ordered the people to take shelter in the mines until the curse could be undone. The mountain would hold onto its heat far better than their homes, and they could pump the weak and sickly warmth of the great furnace through the pipes normally used for ventilation.

[Footsteps in snow]

Moving as quickly as they could in the freezing cold, the townsfolk began to shuffle away as the captain of the guard began calling a handful of soldiers for his hunting party. Ofrin waited until the square was all-but-empty, but the captain did not call his name. Instead he nodded when he saw the assembled troops, then turned and gestured them to follow him.

[Quick footsteps in snow]

Alarmed, Ofrin raced after the captain, catching him by his sleeve and asking him if he hadn’t forgotten anything. The captain turned with a glare even colder than the snow surrounding him, and said no – he hadn’t. Ofrin’s actions, while not quite stupid, had been immensely short-sighted, and could very well have doomed them all. Even without the dragon’s curse, he’d shot the beast while it was flying directly over the precariously perched village. A half-second earlier, and the dragon’s body could have fallen on top of them, sending the entire town tumbling from the summit. “Besides,” the captain concluded before Ofrin could even process what he was saying, “You’re not a soldier or a hunter, whatever else you may be. Go shelter with your family, and leave the dragon to us.”

[Footsteps in snow, fading into the distance]

Ofrin watched in mute surprise as the platoon of soldiers marched out of the square, disappearing into the darkened streets ahead. He stood there for a good long while, only shaking from his stupor when the icy cold of the storm finally breached his heavy coat, and he shivered, drawing it tighter around himself. If he’d ever felt lower than he did at that moment, he couldn’t remember when. He had finally done something right, something that he could be proud of… And it had been snatched away from him by a curse he couldn’t possibly have known about. He felt his blood run hot despite the winter’s chill. How was this his fault? The captain clearly didn’t know this would happen – who was he to lay the blame on Ofrin’s shoulders? To steal his one and only chance to do something right, something important with his life?

[Quick footsteps in the snow]

Before he could think better of it, Ofrin was racing towards the edge of the village as the snow continued to pour down, running full-pelt towards the narrow, icy chasm known as Pikemen’s Stairs.

[Music]

Though Ofrin had never been tempted to leave the village like so many of his outcast kin, he was fascinated by the world outside it: specifically the topography of the blue mountains themselves. He’d spent many a long evening pouring over maps and charts borrowed and bought from the traders, merchants, and cartographers who had dealings with his village. After all, almost all of their food came from the villages down in the foothills, and the traders who delivered it had to navigate the steep sides of Mount Morgan year-round, finding the few safe roads and passes that allowed them to avoid the sheer drops, ice-fields, and rockfalls that gave the mountain its deadly reputation. Pikemen’s Stairs was one such passage — but it was only rarely used. While it cut almost a day out of the climb to the summit, that was only because it was a nearly vertical split in the rockface, broken only by a narrow set of stairs carved into the stone by the first dwarves to settle the mountain. That might not have been so bad by itself, if not for the strange phenomena that gave the place its name. Some quirk of the wind and how it moved through the chasm meant that every year, the icicles that lined the bottom of the passage pointed upwards rather than down, rising like a hundred sharp-edged pikes at the foot of the stairs. Few dared to take that path even in summer, and Ofrin knew that the captain’s party would not be making the descent that way. As he stopped by the blacksmith’s forge and grabbed a mostly-sharp axe from his abandoned workbench, he smiled to himself. No one was going to steal this chance from him, much less that smug-faced old captain. Ofrin Old-Stone would go down in history as the dragon slayer he was always meant to be, and damn anyone or anything that tried to stand in his way.

[Howling wind through rock and ice]

As he clung desperately to the slick walls of Pikeman’s Stairs a few hours later, just trying to keep his footing on the icy stone, Ofrin tried desperately to hold on to that conviction. He was more than halfway down when a sudden burst of wind had driven him backwards, almost sending him tumbling into the waiting spike below… But he’d just barely managed to pull the axe from his belt and drive it into a split in the rock, catching himself just in time. He spent the next five minutes hyperventilating, trying not to pass out from fear and cold and the sense of sudden vertigo when he glimpsed the sheer drop waiting for him if he slipped.

It was only once his heart began to slow and his breathing became more regular that Ofrin realized just how stupid this was. He was no mountain climber or explorer… he wasn’t even a trained soldier. What chance did he have to make it down the mountain, much less kill a dragon? For a long moment he considered going back… Then realized that to do so would require him to climb back up the Pikemen’s stairs. He felt his stomach churn at the thought of that drop getting any longer, and decided, with a feeling of sickened shame, to climb down to the bottom of the stairs, find the captain, and return with him up one of the safer passages. Gritting his teeth against the biting wind, Ofrin wrenched his axe from the stone and resumed his slow, terrifying passage down.

[Footsteps in snow]

[Wind fades, sound of birds in the early morning]

The sun was just beginning to rise behind the clouds when he finally reached the foot of the chasm, carefully making his way around the six-foot long icicles towards the far more welcoming snow beyond them. His legs ached and his lungs burned with the cold, and more than once he’d narrowly avoided toppling from the ledge… but he’d made it, and in the early morning light, he could faintly see a wide swath of soot-stained snow and shattered trees stretching away from him: the path of the fallen dragon.

[Rising low drone]

His axe was already out and dulled almost beyond the point of usefulness, but still he hefted it, feeling its solid weight in his hand. Even if he ran into the dragon on his way to find the captain, he should be able to avoid it quite easily. With an arrow in its heart and its neck probably broken by the fall down the mountain, Ofrin didn’t think it could put up much of a fight. With that reassuring thought, he willed himself further down the mountain, following the trail of ash and blood.

[Slow footsteps in snow]

It took less time than he expected to reach the end of it, but that didn’t cheer his heart as much as it should have. All signs of the dragon’s fall and its slow, torturous passage across the snow ended in a wide-mouthed cave entrance, nearly fifty feet tall as it yawned open in the mountainside. Ofrin stared into the dark within for a long time, but even with the sun dim and distant behind a thick layer of clouds, its reflection off the brilliant snow surrounding him had left his eyes stinging and his vision swimming in flashing spots and patterns as he tried to catch a glimpse of what waited inside the cave. He thought he caught a glimpse of deep red fire from somewhere within, but that was the only sign of the beast. Everything besides was dark and still and cold.

[Music]

“Are you just going to stand there all day?” A deep, booming voice echoed from within the cavern, shaking Ofrin from his thoughts. He blinked a few times, trying to see into the cave… but his eyes still refused to adjust. Trying to sound braver than he felt, he demanded to know who said that. Whoever it was just laughed, a deafening sound that rebounded endlessly between the rocks. “Why don’t you come in and see?” It asked, and Ofrin heard a faint shuffling sound, like someone was beckoning him forward.

He thought it was fairly obvious why he shouldn’t, and he said as much. Whatever was inside the cave heaved a deep sigh, and Ofrin felt a sudden blast of warm air from somewhere within the cavern. Realizing what he was speaking to and where he was standing, Ofrin tried to scramble away, but tripped in the ankle-deep snow and fell backwards. “Fine,” the dragon boomed, its voice tinged with pain as Ofrin heard it begin to move forward, “If you won’t come in here… I’ll just have to come out there.”

[Scraping against stone}

With a wrenching, clawing, scraping noise, the enormous dragon half-pulled, half-dragged its body from within the cavern, the claws of its forelegs raking against the stone while its back legs and wings trailed behind it in the snow. Ofrin watched in horror as a mouth wider than he was tall emerged from the darkness, standing at the end of a long snout with thin, snake-like nostrils and a pair of wide, intelligent eyes that stared out at him and seemed to glow with their own light… even if it was somewhat dim.

Indeed, everything about the dragons seemed dimmed: the light in its eyes, the brilliant red of its scales, even the fire glowing from behind its teeth. Ofrin had been able to see the latter even through the dark and driving snow of midwinter… Shouldn’t it be brighter than this?

[Deep, rumbling laugh]

The dragon saw the look in the dwarf’s eyes and laughed, looking down at itself. “Ay, child,” it rumbled, suddenly sounding very weak, “I’m not all that I once was… Not even what I was a few hours ago. That bolt cut me deep, and I fear the fire is soon to go out forever.”

[Low drone]

The dragon turned, looking up towards the far-off sun as it said this, a look of deep sadness in its eyes. Ofrin followed its gaze, and was surprised to see the sky less overcast than it was before. Even so, the sun didn’t seem to be shining any brighter, and the world remained washed in a dim, grey light.

Ofrin didn’t know what to make of any of this. He’d expected to find the dragon wounded, sure – but he’d been preparing himself to find a dumb, violent beast, not a living, thinking creature like himself. Ofrin could not deny that was what he faced: an intelligent, aged being far older and far wiser than he could possibly imagine. It was something about its eyes… A depth and emotion shining within them that made him want to weep, even if he didn’t know why. But… If it was so wise, then why did it attack the village? Clearly it knew they would kill it?

[Dragon snorts]

The dragon snorted when Ofrin asked this question, sending a blast of furnace-warm air crashing against the snow and ash. “I didn’t attack your village, child,” the dragon intoned, a look of deep insult and hurt twisting its face, “I was trying to save it.” 

[Music]

Ofrin’s eyes went wide and he stammered, not sure if he could believe it. “This winter is far more dangerous than you could know, child,” the dragon continued, glancing up at the peak of Mount Morgan as it towered high above them, “The last storm left a cornice, just out of sight above your village: a bank of show and ice a mile long, growing heavier and more unstable with every snowfall. I noticed it when I was passing overhead, and realized that if nothing was done, your village would be cast down and utterly destroyed by an avalanche before the year was out. So I did the only thing I could: I intervened. At first, I tried to carve it back, melt it down with my breath… But you and your soldiers tried to shoot me down every time I came close. If I was to save you, I had to be more stealthy… So I waited for the storm. As it happens… Perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered. I destroyed the cornice… But it won’t make any difference in the end.”

Ofrin’s mind spun, trying to make sense of what the dragon was saying. It was certainly possible… he knew there were parts of the summit that could not be seen from the village, and many of them could support a cornice like the one the dragon described. But what did he mean, it wouldn’t make a difference? And why had it cursed their fires?

[Low, pained laugh]

The laugh which came from the dragon’s throat was a mournful, broken sound. “I am not some monster or beast of the Echowood, child,” it boomed, “Nor am I one more mind in the web of life that binds us all… I am a dragon. And though you and your people have forgotten the truth of us, we four have upheld your world since the first second of creation. Earth, air, water — and yes, fire. Each of us linked to a single element, feeding it with the years of our lives. Without the dragon of air, your breath would vanish from within you. Without the dragon of water, the great sea which is its home and all the rivers and lakes that feed it would dry up and vanish forever. Without the dragon of earth, the very ground beneath your feet would sink away, crumbling into the center of all things. And once I am gone… No fire shall ever shine into the night again. No stove or forge or hearth shall ever grant warmth or light or safety against the gathering dark. Even the sun itself shall be extinguished, and the stars go dim and fall from their places. It has already begun… And it is too late to stop it.”

[Silence, wind and birds]

Ofrin stared in wide eyed horror, his mind racing with the implications of the dragon’s words. It couldn’t be true… And yet, the sun overhead seemed even dimmer than before, and he heard no hint of a lie in the dragon’s voice. All Ofrin had wanted to do was be a hero, to finally be noticed… had his actions condemned the world by mistake?

[Sound of a crossbow being drawn]

“Stand aside, Ofrin,” came the sudden voice of the guard captain, sharp and commanding. Ofrin spun around to see him and his platoon of nervous, exhausted soldiers standing behind him, crossbows drawn and leveled at the dragon’s head.

[Dragon hiss]

[Low heartbeat]

He heard the great beast hiss in warning, and felt the air grow warm against his neck. He knew the dragon couldn’t fight them all off, but it would take as many of them as it could before it died… It had to. If the dragon died, everyone died, even if the captain and his soldiers didn’t know that. They couldn’t, not unless…

[Heartbeat slows]

Ofrin froze, suddenly realizing what he had to do. He hadn’t known until that moment if he was brave or stupid or stubborn enough to do it, but… Whether he was or not, he had no other choice. So instead of running, he planted his feet, set his jaw – and said No.

[Music]

Thankfully, the soldiers didn’t just shoot him, and his act of defiance surprised the dragon enough that it didn’t start breathing fire right away. The captain noticed this fact as well, and though he kept his eyes fixed on the dragon, he demanded Ofrin explain himself. And so he repeated the dragon’s words as best he could: pointing out the dimmed and cooling sun as proof that it was telling the truth. When he’d finally finished, the captain thought for a long moment, before telling one of his soldiers to try and light a fire. Despite their best efforts and a copious amount of oil, they couldn’t even get a spark. Satisfied, the captain nodded to Ofrin, ordered his troops to stand down. Stepping forward and setting his weapon on the ground, he addressed the dragon directly. “So… Is there a way to stop this?”

There was, it said – but it wouldn’t be easy. At the dragon’s instructions, the soldiers returned to the village to collect all the dry tinder and coal they could find and brought it back to the cave. As they did so, Ofrin remained behind, keeping watch over the dragon and making sure no wandering adventurer made the same mistake he had, trying to kill the beast for glory. When the soldiers returned, they began to feed the dragon their cargo: very carefully and slowly, but with a consistent, steady pace. As they did, the fire in its gullet began to glow a little brighter, and as Ofrin watched, a few of the scales shattered by his ballista bolt began to grow back. At the end of the feeding, the dragon seemed a little stronger, the red of its scales a little brighter… But only a little. To heal its wounds and fully restore fire to the world would take nearly a century, it said… But it had to be done.

And it was, more or less. In the end, it took more than a hundred and twenty years, what with the dithering and arguments of different village councils and leaders who sought to gain popularity by refusing to care for the dragon… but Ofrin Old-Stone and his kin always ensured that the titan was cared for and fed as it slowly healed its body and rekindled its fires. The fires in the village – and indeed, the whole world – burned low and cool for all that time, but they did burn, slowly regaining their former light and heat as the decades went on.

And finally, when Ofrin was a grey-bearded old dwarf who could barely make his way down the mountain any longer, he met the dragon once more outside its cave as it strode proudly out into brilliant sunlight, flexing its wide, strong wings for the first time in more than a century. Ofrin felt an icy tear in his eye as the mighty beast bent its head low before him and said, “Thank you, old-friend. The world shall not forget this… nor shall they forget you. Not as long as there is fire in the hearth… And in the sky.” With that, the dragon turned towards the western edge of the world, and with a single beat of its enormous wings, took flight, climbing higher and higher into the sky until it at last vanished completely, lost in the light of the setting sun.

[The sounds of the forest outside the inn fade in]

[Grael’s wings flutter]

Grael

You finished cutting it all? Already?

[The Traveler nods]

Grael

Well… Good, I guess. One less thing to do around here. I’m going to… I think I’ll head back inside and check my stores. May need to run to market one of these days. You’ll be fine out here without me?

[The Traveler nods]

[Grael flies back to the inn, opening and closing the door behind him]

[The Traveler sighs loudly]

The Traveler

I know you’re there, Maeven.

[Footsteps and rustling leaves as Maeven emerges from the bushes]

Maeven

I was only keeping any eye out for you. If Grael figures out you have your voice back…

The Traveler

He won’t. I’m not stupid.

Maeven

Maybe not, but you’re still unbearably naive around him. Did you not hear a word I’ve said? How many times must I tell you: he is subtle and dangerous beyond anything you can imagine. I lifted his enchantment and gave you back your voice… isn’t that proof enough?

The Traveler

It only proves you’re a witch and that you’ve got an axe to grind with him.

[Footsteps]

Maeven

This is not some petty feud, child. There are worlds in the balance…

The Traveler

Maybe there are, but I still don’t know if you’re actually on my side. I just… I need time. I need to think.

Maeven

Fine. I’ll give you until the solstice to make up your mind. And if you don’t, well… I have my own way of dealing with the sprite.

[End Credits]

Narrator

Tales of the Echowood. Episode Six: Dragons of the Echowood. Starring Sam Taylor as Grael, Tal Minear as the Traveler, and Alejandra Cejudo as Maeven, with original music by Jesse Haugen. Written and produced by Trevor Van Winkle, and made possible by our supporters on Kickstarter and Patreon.com/homesteadcorner. Our executive producer was Axel Allcock. To learn more about the series and listen to our other podcasts, visit Homesteadonthecorner.com. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, feel free to connect with us on Twitter and Instagram @echowoodpod, and leave a review on Apple Podcasts or the podcatcher of your choice. I’m Trevor Van Winkle, this is Homestead on the Corner, and you’re listening to: Tales of the Echowood.

[Main theme]


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